Click here to learn more about the fourth planet from the sun and the Curiosity Mission.
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It's the other Big Red.
Mars has fascinated people for centuries, and NASA's latest mission there has added to its rock-star status. Space watchers across the country stayed up past bedtime to catch TV coverage as the rover Curiosity stuck its landing on the Red Planet last week.
Astronomers spotted Mars' polar ice caps as far back as the 1700s. In the 1930s, a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' “The War of the Worlds” panicked a nation with a fictional invasion by little green men. We still fixate on Mars, though Elton John's “Rocket Man” tells us seemingly every hour on oldies radio that it “ain't the kind of place to raise your kids.”
Pop culture reflects the allure of Mars, but our interest runs far deeper. Some scientists believe that if life could exist anywhere else, Mars is the likely place aliens would build ranch homes. That prospect tugs at our inner space geek, which means you don't have to be a rocket scientist to cast your eyes skyward and think there's gotta be a Starbucks up there somewhere.
You can spot the planet's reddish glow with the naked eye at night, and its landscape can look downright Earthlike. But don't pack your bags yet. Temperatures on Mars can hit minus 225 degrees. Maybe Elton was right.
Curiosity — an SUV-size lab on wheels — is boosting interest in the planet as it sends back captivating color postcards of dark sand dunes and sweeping red vistas. The rover even has its own Twitter account and has drawn more than 900,000 followers. (Look out, LeBron.)
Teachers are planning to tap the Mars mission this fall for lessons on everything from robotics to fossilized life.
Eric White of Papillion, a self-proclaimed space nerd, is pumped about the planet.
The 34-year-old graphic designer hopes his three children will travel to Mars someday. That would be a galactic jaunt of more than 300 million miles.
“I think it's important for us to explore,'' said White, “to reach for what's out there.”
He hopes the success of this Mars mission — one of more than 30 over the years by our country and others — will encourage manned trips. His love of planets launched when he was an 8-year-old watching the movie “Space Camp,” about kids who accidentally get shot into orbit.
White is way more than a casual space fan. He collects reports on NASA missions. He checks the NASA website frequently for the best times to spot the International Space Station sparkling in the night sky.
Wearing Superman pajama pants, he sat in front of a computer at home watching a live feed from NASA mission control as Curiosity touched down on Mars after midnight Monday. He normally drinks coffee at night, but he sipped a Sam Adams ale to celebrate the rover sticking the landing. He stayed up until 3 a.m.
He quietly golf-clapped so he wouldn't wake his kids. But he admits he may have let out a whoop for the rover, which has a primary mission of assessing whether Mars has ever been able to sustain life.
Steve Kawaler, a professor of physics and astronomy at Iowa State University, shares the excitement.
He believes Mars lures people because of its Earthlike qualities. You can find mountains, canyons, volcanoes, even evidence of dry riverbeds on Mars. Polar ice caps sprout from the Red Planet, and the Martian day is similar in length to Earth's.
Who knows? Maybe the rover will spot a cul-de-sac.
“It's really the prime real estate outside of Earth,'' Kawaler said.
Mars is like Earth's weird cousin, he said, the one at a reunion with a resemblance but definitely from another branch of the family tree.
As coordinator of the Mueller Planetarium at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Jack Dunn keeps an eye on the fourth planet from the sun.
Dunn believes the Mars rover itself is cranking up more interest in the planet. Unlike spacecraft that photograph planets from hundreds of miles away, the rover can rumble across the sandy, rocky Martian landscape, snapping pictures, shooting video and scooping up soil samples.
Rovers “represent us,'' he said. “They drive around, explore — like taking a vacation.”
All the rover needs is a dozen cup holders and a DVD player for the kids.
Michael Edmundson, astronomy teacher at Millard South High School, said the rover is snapping photos that will bring Mars to life for students.
“When kids can see it, it makes it real,” he said.
Wanda Glasshoff, a fifth-grade teacher at Thomas Elementary in Gretna, said the rover's high-tech robotics will grab the attention of this generation of gadget-loving students. Plenty of projects could spill from the mission, such as students building models of a rover.
Curiosity is the most sophisticated Mars rover ever. The six-wheeled unit is equipped with a laser beam that will zap rocks to reveal what's inside. Curiosity is capable not only of taking samples from the planet surface but also analyzing them and providing data to scientists back home.
Kawaler said his college students will learn that the rover will enable scientists to perform geological work on Mars akin to what's carried out on Earth.
“For the first time, we are really doing basic science on another planet,'' he said. “To me, that's mind-blowing.”
World-Herald staff writer Josh Frigerio contributed to this report.
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NASA's Mars Science Laboratory launched its technologically advanced rover, Curiosity, on Nov. 26, 2011, in part to determine the Red Planet's ability to support life. It landed Aug. 6, and began sending data back to Earth.
The rover will study Mars for at least 23 months.
» It is being powered using a radioisotope generator that creates energy from radioactive decay. It takes approximately 15 minutes for data sent from the rover to reach Earth. Here's what NASA wants Curiosity to accomplish:
» Investigate if conditions on Mars are suitable to support microbial life or if they have been in the past.
» Collect and analyze several rock samples from the surface of Mars over 23 months.
» Travel 660 feet per day and above obstacles up to 25 inches high. The rover contains the latest technological advancements from the United States, Spain and Russia.
» Use a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer and a laser spectrometer to analyze and determine the ratio of different isotopes found on the planet. This is key in understanding the history of its atmosphere.
» With an X-ray diffraction and fluorescence instrument, identify and quantify minerals in various rocks and soils.
» Take extreme close-up pictures of rocks, soil and ice, revealing details about the planet's makeup.
» Determine how much of various elements exist within rocks and soil.
» Record high-resolution audio and high-definition video and transmit them back to Earth.
» Calculate how much radiation exists on the planet. This is necessary for planning human exploration to Mars.
GOING TO MARS? PACK A SPACESUIT
Talk about sunburn
With no ozone layer on Mars, the sun's radiation is a danger. No amount of Solarcaine would ease that pain.
Dress in layers
With an average temperature of minus 81 degrees, Mars is darn chilly. The Earth's average temperature is football weather: 57 degrees. Parts of Mars can get seriously cold. We're talking minus 225 degrees. Areas on Earth plunge, but even Antarctica with records of minus 100 degrees would be comfy by comparison.
No deep breaths
Its thin atmosphere consists mostly of carbon dioxide, making Mars a bad place for oxygen-loving humans. Even Usain Bolt would run out of gas up there.
Light on your feet
Maybe you could dunk a basketball, but the low level of gravity on Mars compared with Earth's would hinder blood circulation and cause other health troubles.
A 9/11 TRIBUTE
Two NASA space rovers currently on Mars carry a special tribute to the victims of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Opportunity and Spirit both contain aluminum debris from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. The aluminum was used to make cuffs that serve as “cable shields” for the rovers. Each cuff has an American flag printed on it.
The idea came from Honeybee Robotics employees who work within one mile of the site of the New York City attack. Within days of the attack, employees worked to get artifacts from the 9/11 ruins. On Dec. 1, 2001, a package containing twisted metal was delivered to Honeybee Robotics along with a note: “Here is debris from Tower 1 and Tower 2.”
Spirit was deployed to Mars on June 10, 2003, from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Opportunity launched on July 7 that same year. Each rover had a similar mission to that of Curiosity: relaying data about the environment on Mars and the planet's potential capability to support microbial life. Spirit stopped communicating with NASA in March 2010, while Opportunity is still active and transmitting information.
“It's gratifying knowing that a piece of the World Trade Center is up there on Mars. That shield on Mars, to me, contrasts the destructive nature of the attackers with the ingenuity and hopeful attitude of Americans,” said Stephen Gorevan, Honeybee founder and chairman, and a member of the Mars rover science team.
Click the graphic below for a larger image.